Boris Gindis, Ph.D. 
Article Title
What should adoptive parents know about their children’s language-based school difficulties? Part 4. 
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Language issues of children adopted at an early age and still having language-based reading and writing problems in school. lIs it possible that children adopted internationally as early as 18-24 months of age may still experience language-based academic problems during their school years? The answer is “yes,” and the most likely causes of language issues in children adopted at early age are:

Neurologically-based disorders or certain medical conditions, such as prematurity, low birth weight, or Failure-to-Thrive in the first years of life, severe malnutrition, lead poisoning, pre-natal exposure to alcohol or nicotine, and so on. Neurological impairments may be subtle enough not to be detected during a routine post-adoption medical check up. At times, it takes a specialized neuropsychological examination to pinpoint a specific weakness in the child’s central nervous system. In some, if not many cases, the neurological cause may not be identified, but we still observe patterns of behavior, auditory and visual processes, and attention and memory weaknesses that indicate the presence of neurological problems.

Slow rate of language development before adoption. Internationally adopted children usually have from one to several years of development before the adoption, mediated by their first language. The quality and quantity of a child’s early communicative experience is crucial for forming the foundation of language ability. A lack of proper language stimulation, especially in combination with emotional neglect or trauma and neurological weakness may result in a slow rate of development of basic psychological functions, foremost among them language ll. Language delays or disorders are the most common deficits, kind of a “trade mark”, of children adopted from Eastern European orphanages. According to some research data, at the age of 4 less than 20% of orphanage-raised children use two-words sentences. By the age 7, about half of all orphanage raised children have clinically significant speech (articulation) and language delays and disorders.

Abrupt loss of first language. An abrupt loss of the first language at an early age results in an interruption in overall language development: an IA child must start communicative language acquisition again at the age when her peers have spiked in developing the base for cognitive language. This may lead to a weakened function of language as a major cognitive tool. An IA child may demonstrate limitations in language understanding and use which manifest themselves in a hindered ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.

Lack of cognitive language stimulation after the adoption but before formal schooling starts. Due to their children’s background, despite great advances in the communicative language development of IA children, parents need to remember that cognitive language development requires specific and intense remedial efforts. Literacy (reading and writing) is a language-based activity. In order to acquire literacy, a child must have a solid base in language development.

Good readers are:

  • Phonemically aware
  • Understand the alphabetic principle (phonics)
  • Apply these skills in a rapid and fluent manner
  • Possess strong vocabularies and syntactical and grammatical skills
  • Relate reading to their own experiences

Children who have stimulating literacy experiences from birth onward have an edge in understanding and experiencing print and symbols concepts. That is what most international adoptees are lacking. They enter kindergarten and the elementary grades without these early experiences. They have not been engaged in the language play that develops an awareness of sound structure and language patterns. They had no or limited exposure to bedtime reading. They had no or limited experience with the manipulation of symbols that underlines literacy. A child’s capacity as a symbols and abstract notions user and maker in pre-school years is the best indicator of her ability to master reading, writing, and scientific reasoning.

Unfortunately, this aspect of international adoption is very often overlooked and becomes apparent only when a lot of remediation time has been lost. As a result, internationally adopted children are at increased risk of reading failure. To compensate and properly prepare them for the school experience, before formal schooling they are to be provided with direct instruction or, in some cases, with remediation that develops print concepts, age-appropriate vocabulary and language comprehension skills, and familiarity with the language structure. For some international adoptees, particularly those adopted at or close to school age, this deprivation of learning stimulation in early childhood may contribute to language-based learning disabilities.

Dr. Boris Gindis is a prominent child psychologist specializing in psycho-educational issues of older internationally adopted children. He is the chief psychologist at the Center for Cognitive-Developmental Assessment and Remediation, a lead instructor at Bgcenter Online School, the author of many publications on international adoption issues and frequent presenter at conferences and workshops. The issues, discussed in this article are covered in greater detail in Dr. Gindis’ online class School Issues of Internationally Adopted Children: Language, Behavior, and Academic Functioning 
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